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“An impromptu smoking concert was held” July 30, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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"The Spanish Cavalier" was popular during the Boer War

How do men engaged in warfare keep themselves entertained during any periods of relative calm that might happen to come along? U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, have their iPods and PlayStations.** At the time of the Boer War, the “smoking concert” was a popular way to pass the time. The Wikipedia definition is a good one:

“Smoking concerts were live performances, usually of music, before an audience of men only; popular during the Victorian period. These social occasions were instrumental in introducing new musical forms to the public. At these functions men would smoke and speak of politics while listening to live music. These popular gatherings were sometimes held at hotels. The term continued to be used for student variety performances, especially those associated with Oxford or Cambridge.”

The wide spaces of the South African veld were a world away from the hotels of London or the drawing rooms of Cambridge, but many Boers kept quite up to date with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poetry of Tennyson, and the songs of P. Buccalosi. This was especially true of Boers from the towns, as opposed to the ones from isolated farms where the only book in the house was likely the Bible.

A smoking concert audience in England

Philip Pienaar of the Transvaal Telegraph Service, for instance, could drop a phrase from Tennyson into his description of repairing war-damaged telegraph lines in the Free State: “Drawing the horses behind a low stone wall, we attached the instrument to the line. I listened. There were no fewer than five different vibrators calling each other, some strong and clear, others sounding weak and far, like ‘horns of Elfland faintly blowing.’ Presently the disputing signals died away, and one musical note alone took up the strain.”* The line from “The Princess” would have been common currency.

Marching on Pretoria: Lord Roberts' men

It was Pienaar who had one of the best accounts of a smoking concert during the war. He described an evening in a small hotel in the village of Heilbron. It is late April or early May 1900, when the massive British army under Lord Roberts was pushing the Boer commandos eastward across the veld, soon to reach Johannesburg and Pretoria. Pienaar wrote:

“Here there were gathered together some dozen young Free Staters, and an impromptu smoking concert was held. Everyone present was compelled to give a song or recite something. The first on the programme was Byron’s “When we two parted,” which was sung with fine effect by a blushing young burgher. Next came the old camp favorite, “The Spanish Cavalier.” The sentimental recollections induced by these two songs were speedily dissipated by a rattling comic song in Dutch…. A few recitations followed. One of the reciters…enunciated the lines—“Within the circle of your incantation / No blight nor mildew falls, / no fierce unrest, nor lust, nor lost ambition, / Passes those airy walls…” (The lines are from “The Angelus” by Bret Harte.)

Roland Schikkerling, whom we saw recently in “The capture of the ‘Lady Roberts’,” described an evening in the eastern Transvaal, May 1901:

“Goodman played the harmonium and sang to the tune of “Riding Down to Bangor” that stirring war hymn ‘De Kanon Lady Roberts’ [celebrating the cannon’s capture five months earlier]. I recited ‘Klaas Geswint.’ The evening was a huge success. Mrs. Meyer was charmed and Annie [her pretty 17-year-old daughter] was bewitched…. The only thing in that stood in my way to a complete conquest was that Goodman had lent me a razor, and after painfully shaving one side of my face, the edge so completely gave in that I could not get a hair off the other side…. I posed side-face all evening and, like the moon, showed always the same side of my face to the inhabitants of the earth.”#

And so, as the war dragged on and cause of the Boers became increasingly hopeless, the men still managed to find a few hours of respite.

**I should add that these forms of entertainment aren’t available to the significant number of troops in locations without electricity.

*Philip Pienaar, With Steyn and De Wet. Methuen & Co., London, 1902.

#Roland Schikkerling, Commando Courageous. Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964.

Boers in the field

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Comments»

1. Thomas Stazyk - July 30, 2010

Very thought provoking. I always thought that these sorts of entertainment were supposed to build cameraderie and fight homesickness and generally improve the esprit de corps. If soldiers today are doing things in isolation (e.g., iPod cocoon) it wouldn’t have the same effect.

Jenny - July 30, 2010

There are a couple of elements in these informal smoking concerts largely missing from contemporary forms of entertainment. One is the element of performance: everyone was expected to know how to sing a few songs or to have some poetry memorized for reciting. Of course many people also played the piano or the harmonium. After all, before the days of television, and during long dark evening hours when reading might be difficult, people had to amuse themselves somehow. The other element is the one you mention, of the togetherness or comraderie of these kinds of events. Thanks for your comment.

2. Jenny - August 6, 2010

A friend has sent me the following sentences to add as a comment:
I read your “Lady Roberts” and “smoking concert” pieces with pleasure. I especially enjoyed the latter because it is such a revealing glimpse of the Victorian-era English manners and culture to which the more educated Boers ironically aspired despite their wrath against the Empire. –Roon Lewald

Thanks very much, Roon. That’s a nice point about the irony of the Boers’ fondness for English culture.


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